CHICAGO — I won’t lie. I was worried when I boarded the MS Saint Laurent on a gray, sticky Chicago afternoon. As I walked aboard wearing shorts and a T-shirt covered with pink flamingos, I noticed that I stood out from the crowd like a head of genetically modified iceberg lettuce at the Whole Foods salad bar.
When I planned this 10-day cruise of the Great Lakes, I suspected I might be younger than some of the passengers. Now, at this particular moment, it looked as if I might be the youngest. Additionally, I could easily win a prize for worst dressed. I quickly scanned my brain for possible topics of dinner conversation: I knew most episodes of “The Golden Girls,” had read “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” and had recently seen a romantic comedy starring Diane Keaton. Could this get me through 10 days? Had I packed anything besides flamingo T-shirts?
This was not what I had envisioned. I was supposed to be on this cruise with a friend, who backed out at the last minute. I’m not one to name names (Ricardo), or point fingers (Ricardo), but my friend’s scheduling blunder left me in a position of being on a boat with 200 strangers, and my friends will tell you I’m no Dale Carnegie.
I was drawn to the Great Lakes cruise as soon as I heard about it. This summer was the MS Saint Laurent’s inaugural launch in the Great Lakes on a number of different routes. Mine started in Chicago, hit all the lakes, and then took the Saint Lawrence Seaway to Montreal. Haimark
Lines spent $3.5 million to upgrade the boat and promised a boutique hotel-like experience. If I was shunned by my fellow passengers, at least I could hide out in my blue-and-white boutique hotel-like room and wash my hair repeatedly with citrus-scented L’Occitane shampoo.
Experienced cruisers among you already know my fears were poppycock. Yes, I would meet and befriend a diverse group of people of all ages. Well, almost all ages. But in those first few hours I felt as if it was my first day of high school in a new town, except the classrooms were scented with of Miss Dior Cherie perfume, peach melba, and Aspercreme .
Within this group, however, I watched a microcosm of the world coexist in ways I never thought possible. I learned about the geography and history of the Great Lakes, but more importantly I learned that cruises make for strange bedfellows. And no, I’m not using the term “bedfellows” in a “Love Boat”-esque way.
People of different political leanings and economic standing who might never interact on shore were forced to come together, particularly on such a small vessel. (The Saint Laurent has a capacity of 210 guests and 90 crew.)
At times I was glad my nameless friend (Ricardo) had skipped out because it allowed me to observe these relationships. I watched the blossoming friendships between Southerners Dixie and Chris and New York metropolitan area sophisticates Merle and Larry. They had collectively taken me under their wings and became both my boat buddies and adopted parents. Many assumed that we were all somehow related.
My favorite conversation occurred while I sat between Dixie and Merle one night as they discussed cooking techniques.
Dixie: “I freeze my blueberries to keep them from getting mushy.”
Merle: “I freeze my matzo balls.”
After dinner I would frantically scribble down details of the conversations, the list of characters on the ship, and on-shore excursions. When I read through them now — at least the parts that didn’t get ruined the night I spilled wine on my notebook — I realize that the people were what made the trip special. Horse and carriage rides, Lake Michigan scenery, and boxes of candy aside, I loved watching the interactions and the larger-than-life characters. I was living in a sitcom.
Allow me to introduce Bloody Mary, so named for her love of libations. She was the only passenger on the ship who dressed down for dinner, in sports jerseys and shorts. The ship’s self-appointed dance expert, Dread Astaire, scoured the lounge each night looking for for a waltz partner. Most women avoided eye contact and silently prayed he wouldn’t come near. Some even feigned ailments and injuries to escape his grasp. A mysterious millionaire, let’s call him Carlo, told me at lunch one day that his profession was “business.” When pressed for details about his work, he said “Google me.” Really Carlo?
I learned about my fellow passengers between stops. Trust me, you gain a lot of insight on a 10-day cruise. After Chicago we spent the first day on Lake Michigan as we made our way to the lovely Mackinac Island, where there are no cars and lots of candy shops.
Every night I gathered with my new blended family for dinner in either the Shearwater Dining Room or the Cliff Rock Bar & Grill. A quick word on food, which is one reason many of you choose to cruise: It was fantastic. This is not a stuff-yourself-silly-until-you-beg-the-waiter-for-a-lap-band kind of cruise. You could eat to excess (it’s all included, even alcohol), but the dining choices felt more like going to a fancy restaurant than eating on a ship.
The Cliff Rock Bar & Grill offered the very gimmicky option of cooking your own meat or fish on a stone heated to 400 degrees. I often complain about these setups. I always thought we were paying so we didn’t have to cook ourselves. But the cook-your-own option was so good I went back three times for lamb chops.
As the cruise progressed, my new family grew. I befriended a travel writer from the Netherlands who was roughly my age. I gained a third mother, a Brit now living in Canada. We danced every night in the lounge until we laughed so hard at our goofy antics that we could dance no more. There is something freeing about not knowing a soul on a ship. Friends back home would never witness my ill-advised dance moves, which looked something like a cat slipping into a bathtub.
I was initially worried how I would fit into the cast of the MS Saint Laurent sitcom. I was playing the part of the Boston travel writer who was excitedly talking about his upcoming same-sex wedding — perhaps a bit too much. But everyone, right down to my adopted religious Southern parents, was sweeter than confetti cake. Our labels disappeared. I had no interest in staying in my room and washing my hair. I couldn’t wait to spend time with my new friends.
There were a few drawbacks to cruising on the Great Lakes. The Saint Laurent is a small ship, a necessity for navigating narrow channels, canals, and locks. But this meant no swimming pool, no gym, and a limited number of communal gathering spaces. The ship didn’t have a giant 24-hour buffet or slot machines. If you’re looking for a cruise where you sit in a pool and get pie-faced on piña coladas, this is not your ship. I think Bloody Mary was rather sad to learn this.
The MS Saint Laurent is the kind of ship that offers lectures about the geography and history of the region. Drawbacks? I’d say the largest was a stop in Sault Ste. Marie (the US side). We visited a sad little museum housed in an old ship while a teenager read details of the area’s maritime history from notes in a binder. He confessed it was his first day. The main street was filled with tacky T-shirt stores, and, of course, more fudge shops. Tourists to this region are called fudgies. After all the fudge I consumed, my nickname should have been Fudgie Fatty.
Initially I thought I was the only passenger traveling solo. But one night I met Ellen, a widow in her late 70s or early 80s — what gentleman would ask a woman her age? — who told me she was on the cruise because it was something that she and her late husband had always wanted to do. As she watched passengers dance to the Carpenters’ song “Close to You,” she told me how she desperately wished she and her husband were among the couples embracing and swaying.
“This sounds terrible, but I’m jealous of them,” she said. “I don’t understand why they all get to be here with their spouses, and I don’t. I would give anything to have him here.”
I gave her a hug and realized how petty I had been. I had pouted that my nameless friend (Ricardo) had skipped out. I had made derogatory remarks about “Murder She Wrote” and the Hallmark channel. I had acted like a snitty, insensitive milksop who deserved a healthy smack and a mouthful of L’Occitane citrus shampoo.
Ellen, however, was emotionally brave enough to sit every night and watch her contemporaries dance, fulfilling a dream she and her late husband had shared. I was lost in the moment until Bloody Mary stumbled on the dance floor and spilled her Long Island Iced Tea.
We docked in Windsor, Ontario, and drove to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. That night a thunderstorm chased us as we cruised Lake Erie, providing a spectacular backdrop. The next day, we wore hot pink ponchos and got soaked at Niagara Falls before lunch at a nearby winery.
As the cruise neared its end and we passed through the Thousand Islands in the Saint Lawrence River, it began to feel as if I were approaching the last day of summer camp. My Southern mom Dixie knit me a dish towel, and my New York metropolitan area (that’s a polite way of saying New Jersey) mom made plans to visit me in Boston.
Back in my flamingo T-shirt (don’t judge — I ran out of clothes), I said goodbye to my three new sets of parents, and watched the characters from the sitcom disembark. Dread Astaire elegantly walked to his tour bus, the mysterious Carlo scurried away into the Montreal traffic, and I assume Bloody Mary was off to a distillery tour. I would miss them all.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.